By Charisma L. Miller, Esq.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
On Sept. 13, 2012 many Brooklynites headed to the polls to cast their votes in the New York City Primary Election. While many voted with ease, some were shocked to find that their polling place had moved, or worse, had closed.
The New York City Board of Elections and other city officials began fielding complaints the morning of the primary, and calls are still coming in. Many are citing the recent redrawing of the city’s electoral lines as the source of confusion.
"It's clear that due to redistricting there was widespread confusion about polling locations which suppressed turnout and dissuaded eager voters from executing their constitutional right," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY.
Polling places in Brooklyn were especially affected. Assemblyman Karim Camara of the 43rd Assembly District noted even though there were no primary challenges in his district, many people who were eager to vote found polling places in Crown Heights, Lefferts Garden, and East Flatbush closed.
These people were apparently never informed that since there were no challenges in the district, they didn’t have to vote. Camara later sent a letter to his constituents charging that the city’s Board of Elections did not provide adequate notification of poll changes and closures.
The Board of Elections maintains that it began sending out mailers in August to notify would-be voters of changes to poll sites. While mailings are usually an effective way of providing information to a significant amount of people, it’s the accuracy of the mailers that is being called into question.
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, in a letter to the Board of Elections, charged that many of the flyers “directed voters to the wrong poll sites,” and some voters did not receive any notice at all.
De Blasio recounted the story of two voters in Brooklyn’s 57th Assembly District who did not receive the flyers. The voters “went to P.S. 316, their usual polling place. They were informed that because of redistricting, their poll site had changed, and they were directed to vote at P.S. 22. But upon arriving at P.S. 22, they were told that the poll workers thy met earlier were mistaken, and that [the] new polling site was actually P.S. 9.”
Councilman David Greenfield (D-Borough Park/Midwood) predicted this chaos in the Sept. 5, 2012 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, when he noted that “Nothing is more frustrating than taking the time to vote and being told that your polling site has changed.”
Brooklyn Council Members Jumaane D. Williams, Vincent J. Gentile and Letitia James held a Sept. 20 press conference on the subject. There, Williams claimed that “while the BOE may not have intended to disenfranchise New Yorkers, their negligence in addressing key voting issues had that accidental and unfortunate effect. "
Defending the mailing process, Valeria Vazquez-Rivera, director of communications and public affairs for NYC Board of Elections told the Eagle that “the NYC Board of Elections used a United States Postal Service (USPS) tracking service when sending the mailers. It allowed us to track mailings up until the time that the mailer was scanned at various local post offices. If someone did not receive a mailer, they should contact their respective local post office.
“We have created an app for voters to locate their poll site via their mobile phones,” Vazquez-Rivera added. “Our website has been re-designed to be user friendly and allows voters to view and enlarge their sample ballot for a better view.”
Councilman Williams responded that mobile apps and access to websites may not a viable solution for “groups like seniors and immigrants that fall on the other half of the digital divide." For those people, the Board of Elections has set up phone banks with trained staff.
Inaccurate information regarding poll sites is not the only issue effecting voters in Brooklyn. This month, Judge Deborah Batts, federal judge for the Southern District of New York, ruled that nine polling sites in Brooklyn maintained “pervasive barriers to accessibility [of handicapped voters] on Election Day.”
The plaintiff in this case, United Spinal Association v. Board of Elections of the City of New York, argue that hindrances such as inaccessible ramps, missing signage and improper placement of voting equipment prevent disabled voters from getting to voting machines to cast a vote.
The Board of Elections has now received approval to send out additional mailings to voters regarding poll site information in time for the general election. De Blasio, for one, is “relieved [that] the Board of Elections is sending out another mailing to voters to head off a repeat of Primary Day’s poll site confusion.”